This deeply meditative interview with CMarie Fuhrman and Dean Rader, editors of the 2019 collection, Native Voices, raises essential questions about the literary canon. Who gets to decide visibility? Who gets the platform to give voice to experience? What bodies are fortunate enough to be consumed by poetry? Or in Hari Alluri’s words, “Whose bodies are consumed by poetry? Whose bodies of work are fortunate enough to be canonized as poetry?” Native Voices is an amalgamation of veteran poets and newer voices transforming ancient methods of writing and thinking, by continuing the work from their respective lineages in contemporary ways. There are indigenous poets who have been contributing for decades, and there are young talented poets who bring innovative ways to writing poems. Although for some, the writers in this anthology may seem new, they are given space within these pages. Native Voices is a matter of visibility—to show the world what has existed, and the new poets who will continue to transform their existence into experiences galvanized as a body of art.
You both have extensive backgrounds as educators and poets, and it shows through this crucial anthology. I keep returning to Native Voices and discover something new. Before we discuss Native Voices, can you tell us what inspired you to put this anthology together?
CMF: This anthology arose out of a conversation with Jeffery Levine, editor at Tupelo Press. Jeffrey and I met in the mountains of Truchas, NM and our conversation about Native poetry and poetry, in general, led him to ask if I was interested in being on the editorial team of this anthology. He has said several times that of all the publications Tupelo has put out, Native Voices, he felt, was the most important. So Jeffrey built the stage really and we went from there.
In the early days of talking about the anthology, it was just poetry. But as the talks continued, we saw that there was a need for something more comprehensive, a place for Native poets to put more than just their poems, but to honor literary ancestors and to talk about craft. The craft aspect was very important to me. I wanted others to see the artist as well as the art. And I have mentioned this last part before, but it is worth repeating. Native Voices holds the place for the many Native teachers we need in classrooms, particularly in classrooms that hold Native students but have traditionally been headed by non-Native instructors. I thought of my students at the University of Idaho, how they had to hear non-Native people tell them what their Native cousins were trying to say in their work when they likely had no idea about the specific culture or experience. This book brings 44 teachers into each class, it brings family to Native students. Support. It teaches all on its own.
DR: I have been teaching and writing about Indigenous poetry, art, and fiction for over twenty years now, which has been—and continues to be—immanently rewarding. However, I have noticed over the years that when talking or thinking about Native literature, readers almost always focus on its aboutness. Very rarely do teachers or critics address formal concerns. As a poet, this has always bothered me.
I was interested in putting together an anthology of poetry that foregrounds aesthetics, poetic form, language, and literary craft. Too often, readers come to work by people of color thinking they are interacting with or experiencing culture. Maybe they are; maybe they aren’t. Regardless, I have found that even critics of poetry who are willing to talk about the craft of, say, Elizabeth Bishop or Wallace Stevens, tend to read Indigenous poetry through the lens of “message” or “theme.” That annoyed me. Why does John Ashbery get to be an artist and be taken seriously for his formal innovations but excellent poets like Sherwin Bitsui or Deborah Miranda do not?
I wanted a book to remedy that. I hope we have at least partially succeeded.
Just from the opening essay and poems by Carter Revard, for me Native Voices is dangerous in the sense that it challenges normalized approaches to a body of work. When Revard juxtaposes Simon Ortiz’s “Speaking” with Wallace Stevens “Anecdote of the Jar,” he says Stevens speaks in “a Conqueror’s voice,” and I was alarmed by his accuracy and boldness. While the conversation is slowly changing, I think this type of critique is missing from our classrooms and from our discussions on craft. What ways do you foresee Indigenous poets teaching Native Voices in classrooms, especially in classrooms where the contact zone is filled with students from various ethnic and poetic backgrounds?
DR: At USF, which is annually one of the top 10 most diverse campuses in the country, the classroom is not one and not even two but often five or six or ten contact zones. One of the things I try to do in the classroom is what Native Voices does—and that is reorient the lens through which we look at exemplars of craft. Rather than Anglo CIS white males and their poetics of indeterminacy always being the compass of poetic craft, Native Voices offers new directions, new lenses. What I love most is that the poets in this collection have different ideas of what Indigenous poetics and poetic craft is/are. They also look to a plurality of writers—there is nothing monolithic or homogenous about the poetry or the poetic influences in this book. It reflects the diversity within Native writing.
CMF: The only thing I think I can add to what Dean so eloquently said is how I see the book empowering Native teachers, or indigenous instructors of any background. Finally we have a book that has our back. In a sense, it feels as if we are bringing forty plus other teachers into the room with us. I hope that it is an inspiration to non-Native students and teachers to seek out or create collections of their literary ancestors so they might bring a choir of voices into the classroom with them as well.
I would love to see Native Voices taught in Creative Writing courses. Have you had the opportunity to teach Native Voices in your classrooms? From your experience, is this anthology, rich with so many poets who discuss new ways to approach poetic craft, best taught by poets?
CMF: I have been honored to guest teach from the book in venues from Idaho to New York. It has been so deeply rewarding to watch students, Native and non-Native react to the work and the words—both the poems and craft pieces. I think that when talking about genre, it makes sense to separate poetry from prose as a way to try to categorize and talk about the different work they both do, but when it comes to the art of writing, I don’t believe there is a difference. Native Voices can be taught by prose writers, poets, academics—it is rich with possibility, as rich as the field of Native poetics itself. Everything is story. If a teacher has the wisdom and heart to see story, despite its delivery, then they will be able to help convey the messages within the pages. Native Voices can be taught as a craft book, a poetry book, or examined as a collective or even historical document.
DR: What I love most about Native Voices is that it can be taught by poets and fiction writers but also scholars and critics. Literature professors who are used to teaching poetry in their Native American Literature classes now have a new way into the poems—the craft essays are an entrée, via prose, into the poetry itself. I have also talked to many professors who want to teach more poetry in their classes but have not had a good anthology to use; they have not been able to find one text that includes seminal figures like Leslie Marmon Silko and Carter Revard; the middle generation of poets like Joy Harjo, LeAnne Howe, and Louise Erdrich; and hip younger poets like Sherwin Bitsui, Layli Long Soldier, Jennifer Foerster, Orlando White, Laura Da’, Cedar Sigo, and Julian Talamantez Brolaski. This book will be very helpful in that regard. Also, not all literature professors are super comfortable teaching poetry—that’s why Native Voices is the ideal text. Many of the craft essays can be read through the lens of literary engagement. They are themselves excellent examples of close readings. They slow down and pay attention to how language and poetic form construct meaning and experience. So, on one hand, I agree completely that Native Voices is built for a creative writing classroom, but it is also perfectly designed—more than others—for use in a traditional literature classroom as well.
I have to agree with you both on Native Voices’ receptivity to creative writing and literature in classrooms. I find this anthology to be refreshing and enlightening for writing prose and poetry. In terms of poetic craft, what is one poetic technique that the poets in this anthology discuss that has stayed with you, and have you had an opportunity to use the technique yourself in your own writing?
DR: This is going to sound like a bit of a cop out, but I would say that I’ve found something useful—some kernel, some seed—in all of the craft essays. At present, I’m particularly taken with Michael Wasson’s essay, in part because it does a kind of triangulation between poetry and art that I am also doing. In his piece, he is filing in the gaps, creating gaps, making a new text through a collaboration with an Eduardo Corral poem that is itself a response to a work of art by Tino Rodriguez. Michael’s text is not only textual; it is also visual. It points toward art, it points towards semiotics, it points toward language, it points toward the self, it points toward the Nez Perce, it points back at us. I just taught his astonishingly good “This Dusk is a Mouth Full of Prayer,” as a master text on the line break. I see in this poem things I’m trying to do in my own work. I love learning from this book!
CMF: I don’t know that this is a technique, but the one thing I noticed that was a theme or thread running through the craft essays was agency, empowerment, and healing. I keep thinking of Audre Lorde, and her essay about “using the master’s tools.” The essays and poems through Native Voices are consistently working to “dismantle the master’s house” insofar as they modify, tweak, and queer the English language. Sleeping indigenous languages wake up in the poems and prose, old stories and songs are brought back. Native poets are not using the master’s tools but modifying them to dismantle houses built for colonization and for control of Native people. This agency and power is exciting to me. This inspires me and is one of the greatest lessons of the text.
Can each of you please choose an excerpt from an essay, a poem, or part of a poem and speak to how it has impacted your perception of poetry?
CMF: I come back again and again to Deborah Miranda’s piece about the Wendy Rose poem, “Excavation at Santa Barbara Mission”. In her essay, Miranda talks about finding Rose’s poems in a university bookstore in Seattle and how her first encounter was, “almost like meeting a person whose arrival I had been longing for but did not know how to find. ‘Excavation’ tore off the bandages from a wound I didn’t even know my body bore. I had no idea it was possible to write that absence, that jagged rupture in history, that erasure, of my homeland’s history.”
I read that essay and the poem, as I mention in the forward, while camped along the Snake River. The site we were camped at once held the graves of many Nez Perce, most of them excavated or robbed, the contents lost to history or displayed in private collections.
It was reading the essay and the poem, and then all the poems, that I realized the omnipotence of poetry. Here, words were being added to take away. In Rose’s poem and in many poems within the anthology, the repetition becomes chant and each time we read, “They built the mission with dead Indians,” the loss becomes greater and greater and, in another way, we honor, add honor, to the dead by recognizing them. This is not minimalist work, but the work of genius to excavate a wound in the reader as well.
DR: I would just follow up on my previous comment about Michael Wasson’s “This Dusk Is a Mouth Full of Prayer.” I just read this poem—and by some amazing coincidence Wendy’s “Excavation at Santa Barbara Mission” for a podcast this very morning. So, both poems are on my mind.
I want to show you what I mean about this being a kind of master class of the line break. Let’s look at the opening few lines:
When you came
into my mouth
opened wide enough
how to swallow
light: this surrendering
the body is my skin
tracing starved beauty
in climax: us
lying in the dark
shadow of another
lord: give me your dying
words like father
or my tongue
So, the poem begins very provocatively. On one hand the opening lines could be read through a sexual, even orgasmic lens. It is an amazing way to open a poem. But on the other hand, if you read backwards from the italicized lord, the poem could be, as the title suggests, a prayer, very much in the mystic tradition when one would beseech God to enter them. In fact, these lines recall the opening lines from one of my favorite Louise Erdrich poems, “Sacraments,” that begins “Lord, I was not meant to be the isolate / cry in this body. / I was meant to have your tongue in my mouth.” That is a pretty hot line, or is it a wholly sacred line? Yes! In both poems, the poets limn that razor thin line between the hot and the holy.
I also love how the lines “lying in the dark / shadow of another / lord: give me your dying / words like father” can be read totally differently based on the line break. For instance: “lying in the dark shadow of another” or “lying in the dark. Shadow of another” or “lying in the dark shadow of another lord” or “lying in the dark shadow of another. Lord, give me your dying” or “lying in the dark shadow of another lord, give me your dying father.”
Michael’s ingenious line breaks make each reading of this poem a different experience. And, we haven’t even talked about the intoxicating rhythms, the gorgeous sounds, the sneaky rhyme of lying and dying and father and another.
This poem is pure art.
These are beautiful selections from an anthology with so many powerful writers. Will you be working together on a second edition, or what projects are you currently working on, and what can we can anticipate from each of you in the future?
DR: You ask a great question. I would love to collaborate with Cindy again. And, it was a treat working with Tupelo. There are a few things I’d like to tweak in a second edition, some poets I’d love to see in the anthology, like Wendy Rose, Jeanetta Calhoun Mish, Janet McAdams, Jake Skeets, and Kim Shuck.
As is, the anthology does important work. I’m very happy with the positive reviews it’s received, and I’m pleased that the poets in it feel like it represents their vision and craft.
As for my own work, I just finished an essay on Janice Gould, and I’m working on two new books of poems, one of which enters into conversation with the art of Cy Twombly. I am on fellowship this calendar year, so I’m hoping to get a ton of work done.
CMF: I learned so much from my time with Dean and working on the project. In the time since the release of Native Voices poems and poets have found their way to me and I wished for another hundred pages or second volume to include them. There is so much talk about poverty on reservations, but this is not true. Holding the book and the knowledge of all of the other amazing poets and poems out there is proof that Natives have wealth. I’m glad Dean mentioned Jake; his poetry is incredibly alive and challenging. I also think of Cassandra Lopez, Dawn Pichón Barron, Louise Abeita, and Byron Aspaas. All of them have contributed incredible work.
That Tupelo opened their press to this work, and trusted Dean and I, implicitly impresses me still.
I have a chapbook of poems coming out in a couple of months from Floodgate Press. I am editing nonfiction for High Desert Journal, I am the translations editor of Broadsided Press, and I have several teaching opportunities and some wonderful residencies on the calendar. My writing life has turned to finishing a book of nonfiction essays, a book of meanderings through the Wilderness where I live and the relation of the Native female body to the landscape.
Is there anything we have not brought to light, or what last words can you leave us with about Native Voices that we have not discussed?
CMF: Your questions, Arthur, have been beautifully and thoughtfully constructed. Thank you. You have covered so many of the topics that Dean and I talked about and that were terribly important to us.
My final thought then is about gatekeeping, is about who gets to be heard and read and what non-Native publishers, interviewers, media sources, reviewers, and subsequently purchasers of the book can do. It is no accident that we used “Voices” in the title. We wanted to be certain that these voices were held up and were identified; we allowed a place in which to speak among peers, relatives, and colleagues. We want this book to not only open doors but keep them propped open. To be an example of the writing that is available when we make space for it and let those voices speak for themselves. If you are a person of privilege reading this and/or the anthology, use that responsibility to make room for more collections like this. More voices. We are, I believe, all the better for it.
DR: That was very well put. I’m not sure I have much more to add. I agree, Arthur, your questions are smart and insightful and reflect a knowledge of the book and the work the book addresses. And, as always, Cindy is spot on about gatekeeping and inclusion.
The one thing I might add is a hope that folks will come to this book for the sense of discovery. The discovery of new voices like Laura Da’, Jennifer Foerster, Michaelsun Stonesweat Knapp, M. L. Smoker, Bojan Louis, Molly McGlennen and others; the discovery of older voices most readers don’t think of in terms of poetry like Leslie Marmon Silko and Louise Erdrich; and the discovery of the voices of art, craft, and poetic form, which are rarely highlighted in anthologies.
It is a great honor to be part of a project that is first and foremost about advancing indigenous voices and conversations.
For a review on Native Voices: Indigenous American Poetry, Craft and Conversation, see “Native Voices: A Matter of Visibility“, by Arthur Kayzakian